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Project Icarus had its humble beginnings with a dream to see what the world looked like from the sky. At first, images were captured using a balloon tethered to the ground with fishing line, but then we dreamed bigger. After some research into high-altitude balloon flights, we were ready to start planning.

A major limitation to our work was the fact that we, being poor college students, had a very limited budget to spend on the electronics.  The radio equipment necessary for tracking and retrieval of the balloon/camera was simply too expensive.  Fortunately, we discovered that gps-enabled cell phones (and several models of these phones well within our budget-range) can be turned into trackers that would lead us to the balloon.

The next problem we faced was geographical in nature: we live on the coast, and if we launched the balloon from Boston, the prevailing West -> East jetstream would push the balloon into the Atlantic ocean.  From previous low-altitude launches, we estimated that the balloon could drift as far as 200 to 300 miles during the course of its flight.

Knowing this flight risk, we planned to launch the balloon somewhere in the vicinity of Albany, NY. We planned to drive half of the distance the night before and finish the rest of the 250 miles on the day of the launch.  We camped out in a Target parking lot because we could not afford to spend any money on hotel.


Sleeping in the parking lot













Fortunately for us, the wind conditions during launch day were minimal.  The University of Wyoming hosts a balloon trajectory website, and we checked it to determine probable landing locations of our balloon.  Since it seemed that the balloon would not be going far on that windy way, we decided that Sturbridge, MA would be far west enough to compensate for our balloon’s drift.

35 comments to Pre-Launch

  • Don S.

    Do you know if there are phone programs that update a specific website with the coordinates? Or do they place the information on the phone itself resulting in it having to be retrieved at a later point?

    I’m looking at helping my son do a smaller scale project for his science fair and basically track a few “party” sized balloons for distance. By attatching a prepaid cell to a few party balloons. Is there a way for the GPS coordinates to be sent to a website for tracking or do you physically have to get the phone to upload the trip that was traveled?

  • Eric Ferguson

    There’s a very simple, free program that works perfectly for what you’re looking to do! It’s called “instamapper”, it runs on most GPS-enabled phones and enables real-time tracking using a web browser. Works perfectly. You can export the data that it produces to all sorts of formats, or use the web interface to play with it.

  • hello, i `m a brazilian journalist for Trip magazine. I would like very much to feature Project Icarus in our next issue. If you like the idea, please let me know your contacts.

  • Sarah McCarl

    Hey, I am a student at Whitehorse High in Montezuma Creek Utah. Our Astronomy class is going to launch a balloon silimar to what you did. I was wondering if you could give us some advice on how to do it. Thanks Sarah

  • Aaron

    Well, I’m gearing up for my first launch. I experimented with making my own hydrogen over the weekend. On a small scale with a single, small balloon it works. On a larger scale, the size needed to put a payload of several pounds into near-space, it does not as I currently have it set up. I’m hoping to build an apparatus that will allow for the safe production of hydrogen and this should have more lift and be much cheaper over time. Anyone have any ideas?

  • Ralf

    for making hydrogen there is electrolisis and thus chemical solution

    Let us know how you get on as seems high percentage of hydrogen is fairly safe from explosion or fire risks
    However leaks which allow oxegen to enter in large amounts can make explosive mix
    On average seems to be safe if done outdoors


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